Part I: A Leif Fallen
There is not a single leaf which is a mere ornament; all contribute to the fruitfulness of the earth, and the support of its inhabitants.
– Christoph Christian Sturm
Erik dug his boot into the deep snow, burying it under a thick layer of white. A damp cold crept through the leather, one that he barely registered, numbing his toes with an indifferent chill.
Why had he come back here, returned this wasteland of a place? A place that held unwelcome memories.
The leaves may be changing colour all over Erdrea but here was always the same.
An eternal winter.
Vacantly, he stared out into the oncoming snowstorm, vision swirling with white and the occasional flash of icy blue monster.
Frozen, yet unable to feel the cold, he stood, boot firmly shoved under the snow, looking, just looking. He wondered what it would be like if he stayed here, until his muscles caved, until he fell into the snow. He'd survived it before. Him and Mia had been fished out of that snowdrift, taken in by those brutes.
But that was before.
Before he met him–
His frozen figure thawed.
A gentle splash of red and brown poking out from the blanket of white. A fallen figure.
The muscles in his legs reignited and he sprinted across the snow, ignoring the threat of hidden ice underfoot, the heave of his chest, as he recklessly dashed towards the sign of life.
A woman, huddled over in the snow, unmoving. He brushed soft, mousy hair from her face, pressing his fingers to her neck. A weak, barely registrable pulse.
Blue eyes flew upon, framed by snowy lashes. "P-Please, help, my baby…" She took a shuddering breath.
He spotted sparse, brown hair pressed against her neck. A child, no older than two, swaddled between the fabric, hands dug into her hair.
Without a second thought, he untied his sash and picked the baby up, tying the small body to his chest.
He knelt back down, eyes darting over her frozen figure, skin pale as ice.
"G-Go, save him–"
His chest tightened.
Had his mother had a similar fate?
He'd never know.
Tears burned in his eyes.
All he knew was that there was no way he could carry her, not with baby in tow.
He desperately scanned across the icy wasteland, starting to his feet when he caught a flash of metal.
"Hey! Over here! This woman, s-she's gonna, she's gonna–"
The guard rushed over, kneeling by her side. His expression turned grim.
"I'll take her. You get the baby back to the city, now."
He gave a brisk nod.
Holding him tight to his chest, he sprinted, never once letting go as he sped through the swirling snowstorm.
Erik scrubbed at raw eyes, gently rocking the baby from side to side. The pink had returned to his pudgy cheeks, but he was barely moving, responding. His pulse was steady, Erik had checked meticulously, but still baby didn't move.
Erik wasn't sure if babies understood loss, but this one seemed to be showing all signs of it.
"Mummy saved you, huh? She was so brave," he mumbled tearfully, holding him close.
Krystalinda sunk down beside him on the bed, placing an uncertain hand on his arm. "I am truly sorry."
"Why are you apologising? It wasn't like it was my mum who–"
But it could have been.
"Well, it was a sad affair. Poor Fryssie is in bits." She pressed a palm to her chin. "The unfortunate creature, we don't know her name but… The boy is the product of some Viking conquests in the tavern. They do not know nor likely care who put the poor woman in such a position."
"Vikings, huh?" Erik muttered, teeth clenching. He wrapped his arms more tightly around the baby, a protective shield.
A shield he'd never had as a child.
"Ah, well, I'm sure we can find an orphanage for him." Krystalinda slyly slid her hand back up Erik's arm. "Or perhaps the Vikings could–"
"No!" he cried, instinctively flinching away from her. "They are NOT touching him."
Krystalinda sighed, shaking her head with a chuckle. "You have grown fond of the boy. Well, you may keep him. His mother spoke highly of you in her last moments."
"Said you were a kind and courageous man. Make of that what you will." She patted his shoulder and stood up.
Erik held the baby out at arms length.
The baby eyed him tentatively, pinked face scrunched and raw.
"I guess it's just me and you now, kid," he sighed. "I'm gonna give you a much better life than they ever gave me. I swear it."
He looked back, eyes wobbling.
"Hey, don't look at me like that." Erik held him to his chest.
"Why's it lookin' at me like that?"
"Don't call him it, Mia." Erik pressed a kiss to his forehead, wrapping defensive arms around baby.
He was finally moving, thank the Goddess, if only a little. Erik smiled, even as baby pulled at the laces of his tunic, dribbling on his bare chest.
"Not my fault you haven't given it a name yet," Mia grumbled, pulling a sour face as she stretched back on her bed.
She'd settled in far better than Erik could ever have imagined. Maybe too well. She already had one of the girls stealing for her, and had been caught twice with her hand in the old man's medal purse.
Erik offered her a sly smile, slinking across the room.
"I just gotta use the bathroom, hold him a sec?"
Mia glowered as the baby was handed to her, holding him at an arm's length.
Erik snuck out of the room, grinning like a sabrecat. He peeked through the crack.
"Aren't you such a cute little potato, huh?" Mia cooed, bouncing him up and down. "Yeah! When you're old enough, I'm gonna teach you all the naughty words, yeah? I'm a fun auntie, aren't I?"
Baby grabbed at her plait, gurgling happily.
After a minute or so, Erik re-entered the room, biting his lip in an attempt to hide his smile.
Mia quickly straightened, blissful expression falling off her face faster than snow off a Sniflheim roof.
"You can take him back, now."
Baby gripped her hair tighter.
"Looks like he wants to stay," Erik said smugly.
"Fine," Mia grumbled. "I guess I could hold him a little while longer…"
His grin grew wider. He sat on the bed next to her.
"You like your auntie Mia, don't you?"
"Shut up-uh!" Mia turned her head sharply away. "Hmph. I just feel sorry for you taking care of him all by yourself, is all." Her face slackened. "No… W-Wait..."
"Awh, aren't you sweet!" Erik cooed, patting her head.
Mia shot daggers at him.
He removed his hand, but remained secretly triumphant. An elbow dug into his side.
Mia guffawed as he winced. Baby smiled.
Outside, the ochre coloured leaves rustled in the trees, swirling down to the ground, decorating the grass with hues of shimmering gold.
The pounding in his head was relentless.
"C'mon baby." Erik pressed the spoon against his mouth for third (or was it fifth?) time.
The baby, his baby, squeezed his lips more firmly closed.
Erik dropped the spoon with a frustrated sigh. "I can't even look after myself, how am I gonna look after somebody else."
His throat stung. His eyes burned.
"I messed up with her, now I'm messing up with you. Such a useless piece of shit."
His limbs, heavy and sore; his heart, beating at an unsteady, thundering rhythm. He took a shaking breath. He desperately needed sleep, or a good meal. But he couldn't give up yet. Not when this baby had no-one else.
But he felt so close to caving, dangerously close. As if he could crumble to dust in the slightest of breezes. A dry, autumn leaf, one blow from disintegrating.
A weak, wobbling gargle.
Erik lifted his head, tears dripping onto the table.
Baby was reaching out with both arms, round face scrunching. A strangled cry.
Something in Erik snapped.
"You need a cuddle? C'mere, gorgeous." He scooped baby up in his arms, giving him a gentle squeeze. A shaking palm swiped at his eyes. "I knew someone like you, just as cuddly and snuggly. Sometimes I'd wake up to him crying, just like you, then I'd give him a cuddle to help him sleep."
Another noise. Quiet, but definitely there. A much happier one.
Erik smiled softly.
Of course he would be a calming presence.
It gave him an idea.
His nose wrinkled. His smile dropped. First, baby needed a change.
He grabbed a towel and set it on the table, as he'd done many times before. Baby was put on top of it. His fingers effortlessly undid the cotton, muscle memory taking over. He was already a lot less trouble than Mia at this age, staying perfectly still as Erik undressed him.
Though, if he was honest, he would have preferred him to wriggle a little. Difficult was always better than sad.
"His name was Elli, and he was a magical hero." He lifted the nappy from under him, then put it in the basin. His hand came over him with a gently damped cloth. "But even magical heroes need cuddles sometimes, because nobody is invincible and everybody needs love." He hauled baby up into his arms, giving him the gentlest of squeezes. "Even if love drops, great, stinkin' bombs in–"
"How are ya doin', love?" Ruby ambled over to him, gesturing to the bed.
"G-Good. Well, I can't get him to eat right now, but–" He fell back onto the sheets. "Oh hell, Ruby. I need to be doin' something around here, instead of just sponging off you like some useless crap."
Baby gripped Erik's hair tightly, causing him to wince. He desperately swallowed the urge to cry. The last thing he needed was Ruby thinking he couldn't cope.
"You're doin' the most important job in all Erdrea my little tea leaf: givin' this boy a chance in life. What you need is an 'usband to do everythin' for ya. A nice, 'andsome, strappin' young man who will dote on you like the wonderful, clever boy you are." She nudged him with the point of her elbow. "Look after your every need."
Erik rolled his eyes.
"Oh, ya don't think I remember you an' a certain someone at it like bunicorns in the back of my inn?"
Erik laughed. A tear tumbled onto his tunic.
She tapped baby's nose. The lightest of touches. "Now listen 'ere, little one. It's perfectly awright to cry. 'Specially if daddy does coz he's very, very tired." Ruby carefully took him from Erik's arms, hoisting him up in the air.
Daddy. There was only one context he'd heard that in… and it was nothing to do with fatherly love. At least baby would have some sort of father figure, he supposed. Even if it was him. It was a better start in life than he ever had.
"N-No, it's okay, I can look after him. I can." Erik wiped his nose on his sleeve. "And anyway, it's not like you could find a man who'd take me. Derk left pretty sharpish."
Ruby's brows pinched. "Oh, love. You was just kids, really. Foolishly in love. An' you'd be surprised about 'ow many a gentleman come knockin' on my door askin' to see the beautiful blue-'aired server who used to work 'ere."
"They loved you. Adored you, in fact." She offered an open arm.
Erik curled into Ruby's chest. "They loved my ass," he mumbled. "And asking the same damn question every shift: does the carpet match the drapes?"
"Well, I've 'elped a certain drunk young man into his bedclothes enough times to know the answer to that one!"
"Oh cruelcumber cock, don't remind me. Sorry I was such a terror."
"Don't be silly, love. You're my terror. An' we're gonna find my terror a nice, 'andsome man." She pressed her lips to his cheek. "Mm, what 'bout that Luminary fella?"
Erik winced. "Oh, no… I don't think…"
"He's always poppin' round 'ere, see if I've heard anything from ya. Dyin' to see ya. Oh, in fact…"
Ruby handed baby back to Erik, pushing up to her feet. "He brings food with 'im every time, bless his cotton socks. Look!"
Ruby pulled a tray of biscuits from seemingly nowhere, thrusting them in his face.
The same ones El had made for him the day he left for Mia's treasure hunt, all those months ago. Gently spiced with warm ginger, each adorned with a smiling face and piped buttons. Ridiculous. Sweet. Just like him.
Erik grabbed a gingerbread man and unceremoniously shoved it into his mouth. "Th's so g'd!"
"Well there ya go. A man who adores ya an' is good at cookin'. What more could ya want?"
Erik smiled at the thought. It did taste good– soft and crumbly and homely. Making home with El: it'd be bliss– his gorgeous flavour-filled food, his attentive care. Things he missed sorely, not that he'd ever admit it.
Ruby laughed. "Well, he prob'ly ain't that experienced on the bedroom side o' things but, I'm sure he'd be keen to learn."
Erik pulled a sour face.
"I know he's not your usual type but, maybe that's a good thing. A nice boy who'll treasure you and the little one." She gave baby's hand a gentle squeeze.
"Mmph," he groaned, mouth still full of gingerbread.
"Don't mmph me, mister! He's such a sweet, polite young man. The kinda man you deserve. The man he deserves."
Erik sighed. She was right.
He glanced down at the baby in his arms. El really would be perfect for him.
Baby gave the closest thing to a smile. As if he understood.
The leaves kept falling.
"So this is the story of the Luminary, the bravest hero in all Erdrea."
Baby, carefully nestled between Erik's legs on the bed, grabbed a page of the book, chubby fingers scrunching the illustration.
El sat behind bars, teary eyes vacantly turned to the floor. The image was etched into Erik's memory, so wasn't hard to draw. He still felt guilty about scaring him the first time they met, even if El had repeatedly told him it was okay because he saved his life.
"You like Elli? Me too." He pressed a kiss to the side of his face. "You know, we hear about princes and princesses a lot in fairy tales, but sometimes there can be love between a prince and another prince, or a prince and a thief. Just, sometimes…"
He grabbed at the page again, cooing softly.
"Sorry, baby. Silly adult stuff. Ahem. The day after his sixteenth birthday, the Luminary was thrown into the deepest, darkest corner of Heliodor dungeon. The poor boy was innocent, but yet he languished." Erik gently turned the page, revealing a hooded figure grabbing the hand of a certain startled Luminary.
"But the boy in the cell opposite, a faithless, nihilistic thief, knew who he really was: a hero. So he borrowed the keys from the guards, and helped the boy escape."
Baby grabbed at the page again. Erik broke out into a smile. "It's much softer in real life, trust me. Nice and silky. Not like daddy's–" He sharply turned the page. "Sorry, I, I haven't earnt the right to call myself that, yet."
Baby gurgled as his hands came over the glittering flames of the black dragon. Erik giggled. "Yeah! The thief saved the Luminary from a dragon. And then…"
Another page turned. "The Luminary and the thief jumped off a cliff together, escaping the stupid guards and jumping to freedom!"
He grabbed at the book again.
The way they tumbled through the air, kicking and screaming, wasn't quite as elegant as he'd drawn it, but Erik felt he could exercise a little creative license as it was his story to tell.
"Sorry, baby there's no more at the moment because daddy's lazy and hasn't written any more yet."
Erik froze, ready to correct himself. But baby grabbed at the fabric of his trousers, other hand still on the page. He wiggled happily, making a sweet, babbling noise.
Erik picked him up in his arms, shaking him lightly.
A smile. A big, toothless smile.
Tiny fingers in Erik's mouth, pulling at his lip.
"Silly baby, who's a silly baby?" He tossed him up, sniffing his nappy. "Oh, and stinky too. You did that on purpose, didn't you? C'mon then stinky, let's get you changed, mm?"
Baby greedily slurped up another mouthful.
Erik's smile could dazzle an entire army.
"Good boy!" He planted grateful kisses to the top of his head. "Thank you, thank you so much!" he said blearily. "You've made daddy's day."
Baby reached out for him with chubby fingers.
Daddy. He could get used to that.
That night baby slept on his chest, both content as he curled into Erik's warmth.
Erik inhaled the country air, smiling serenely. Goddess, he was tired, but something about breathing fresh air was deeply calming. Far better than the stagnant pollution of Downtown Heliodor.
He stretched his arms out, holding baby out towards the glowing orange of the trees dotting the Heliodor Foothills. "Look baby, that's Yggdrasil!"
High in the sky, there She sat, looking down on them all with Her loving gaze.
"Do you wanna wave to mummy?" he said, voice straining.
He wasn't sure that was how it worked, having little reason to hold faith when he was young. But it would be comforting, he thought, if there was some connection to the woman who gave up so much for her son.
"Say, hi mummy, I've been good and eating all my vegetables."
Erik gasped, spinning baby around to face him. Baby babbled joyfully, content in the quiet surroundings of nature, leaves falling all around them.
A flame red leaf twirled through the air, landing between their bodies. Baby grabbed the stem.
"Leif. You're baby Leif!" Erik grinned. "The people of Sniflheim say it like I do: Life. The silly Heliodorans would say it Leaf. But it's okay, I like both."
He held Leif up higher and higher, just over outline of Yggdrasil. "Aren't you just full of life?"
Leif giggled, chubby fingers wiggling.
"You don't talk much… And when Mia was your age she was very vocal. But you sure know how to use those hands, don'tcha? Just like he did."
He brought Leif back to his chest, swaying him gently. "It's okay, we can work things out together, Leify. You can be just as expressive with these," he lifted a hand, a single, tiny fist curled around his pinky, "as you can be with this…" he tapped his mouth with a single finger. "He taught me that."
Leif knotted his other hand into Erik's hair, leaf still tightly clasped, head buried in his tunic.
"It's such a beautiful day outside. Why don't we go pick some buzzberries, hm?"
Leif gripped his finger more tightly.
Erik laughed, stepping down the haphazardly put together walkway.
Several miles away.
El poked his needle through the blue cloth with deft fingers, pulling the thread taught. "Cobblestone blue is really gonna suit you," he whispered, smiling. "I can't wait to see–"
"Oh, love." Amber perched beside him on the bed, hand stroking over his shoulder. "Are you sure he's coming?"
"Of course, Ma!" The sewing fell to his lap. "He made a promise, that'd he'd come visit after his treasure hunt with Mia. Erik's not the kind of person to break a promise." He smiled sweetly, gazing out the window at the rust coloured trees.
Any day now he'd see that green tunic, those adorable blue spikes. He'd sent invitations out to all of his former companions, so word must have got around.
And he'd be here, waiting, ready to spring a whole new wardrobe on his well-travelled, and likely weary, partner. Erik always had such sweet reactions to new clothes and armour, once even breaking down after El gifted him a new set. If anyone deserved spoiling, it was definitely him.
That was why he dropped food off at Ruby's once a week, to make sure he didn't go hungry.
"I see…" Amber followed his gaze to the path outside. "Well, you've sewn a lot there, my love. Might'nt Gemma want something?"
El shook his head, still smiling. "These are for him."
Wherever he was, whatever he was doing, he'd come back soon, with a new and likely illegal tale to tell.
Leif sucked at a buzzberry, small body curled into Erik's lap as he collected more of the sweet, crimson berries in a small pouch.
The gentle lilt of Erik's voice filled the foothills, soft words of a language no Heliodoran knew echoing from the cliffside, soothing Leif.
The Vikings may have been barbaric, but they were fiercely protective of those they loved. Separation by sea was a romantic thing, even if they were setting off to raid villages.
A goodbye hurt.
So, before they left, they would sing to those left behind:
My love, I'm coming home,
As sure as trees are green,
I've fallen for you,
As leaves to the ground,
You bring me warmth,
In the coldest winter nights,
My longing for you grows,
Like the fresh buds of spring,
The seasons may change,
But my heart is forever yours,
My love, I'm coming home,
Let our branches intertwine.
Leaves swirled in the cool breeze, dancing through the air and flecking Erik's hair with flashes of warmth– red, yellow and gold– as he sung. As if nature could answer his call.